A Year in Reading: Rosecrans Baldwin

December 10, 2011 | 6 books mentioned 7 3 min read

coverIn August, I went to my local bookstore and asked one of the owners, Land Arnold, to recommend a book. I said I was traveling for the next two weeks and needed something to sustain me. He pulled down Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the 25th anniversary edition from Simon & Schuster. “It’s got everything,” Land said. “It’s a love story. It’s a Western. It’s an adventure. You’ll love it.”

Off the bat I liked the cover. I often buy books based on covers. It didn’t even mention winning the Pulitzer Prize. The edition was a large paperback, 858 pages. On the front was a prairie under a sunset of reddish pumpernickel, with stars embedded in the cover, little dots of embossed reflective silver. On the back was a picture of Larry McMurtry looking like Carl Sagan, Texas Ranger. I thought, Now that is an author.

You know how wine critics say a certain bottle has good mouth feel — literally causes pleasure the way it rolls on the tongue and coats your cheeks? Well, Larry McMurtry felt good on the back cover of that book. It felt good in my hand. Hefty. The paper stock was uncoated, pebbly like an expensive handbag; it suggested it would improve with age and use. In the business, I believe this is called feltweave. I bought the book, broke the spine at the register, and smelled it — nothing in the world smells like that. Makes you want to say with sincerity, Golly. Reminds you that the pleasures of reading are bigger than reading. There’s smell and touch. Note-taking and page-tearing. Most importantly, what the book does to your insides. Let’s just say it: Reading a novel should not be an accomplishment unless you’re illiterate. But we all have other options these days for entertainment. Reading for many — most, I bet — is something more often felt by its absence than presence in daily life.

In any case, I didn’t take to Lonesome Dove straight away. It put me to bed: I started it on a flight from RDU to Philadelphia International and fell asleep. But I could fall asleep to fireworks; it doesn’t say much. And I don’t mind a novel that’s slow to start — though I hate them when they die in the middle. I chuck them into the garbage — and that feels great. Maybe I take books too personally, but isn’t that the point? When your intimate trust is betrayed, isn’t that the moment when we’ve all agreed it’s OK to throw things? Anyway, my Philly connection to New Hampshire went to hell, so for the next 11 hours I ran back and forth to the ticket counter, trying to get on a flight. It was not ideal reading time. Though I did manage to squeeze in a George R. R. Martin book — good dwarf scenes is about all I remember — two meals and five Bud Lights, until finally I got a seat on the one plane that departed that day for Manchester, opened Lonesome Dove, and fell asleep.

That quickly changed. For the next two weeks, I only allowed myself an hour a day with Lonesome Dove, to prolong the satisfaction of reading it. The novel is excellent, sustained with constant style, and its dramatic excellence increases, withholding and rewarding, as the cowboys move their cattle north. Even the ending fits together. One night I slept with it under my pillow. I scratched up the margins and read bits aloud. It’s not incredibly deep. But it’s deep enough. And I couldn’t remember the last time I was similarly floored by a long, dramatic, entertaining literary novel. It had been a while [1]. The ones that come to mind from the past decade are Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay; Ian McEwan’s Atonement; Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai…and that’s about it.

Most days I prefer novels that are compact, smart, and acidic — Falconer; House of Meetings; One D.O.A., One on the Way — all the children of Bovary. But no entertainment for me is more rewarding than a great big book. Just imagine if Penelope Fitzgerald had written a 900-pager.

Earlier this year, a book publicist confessed to me while giggling behind her hand, “You know what, I do all of my book shopping on Amazon, isn’t that terrible?” At the time, I didn’t say anything, but, Yes. It is terrible. Amazon’s perks are many, its prices hard to beat, and the Kindle is a great way to sample the latest Michael Connelly. But no human being is going to materialize through your laptop and hand you a book that’s been thoughtfully selected to rock your boat.

I loved Lonesome Dove. I look forward to reading it again. Thank you, Land.

[1] For big hoary beasts of recent social realism, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson were all great in my book, but they weren’t exactly Great Expectations-level entertainment.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

is the author of You Lost Me There (Riverhead), one of NPR’s Best Books of 2010 and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. His travel memoir, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in April 2012. He is a co-founder of the online magazine The Morning News.


  1. How I’ve missed you on The Millions Mr. Baldwin! The McMurtry seems great (to read, but also to touch and sniff), I’ll definitely pick it up! You should check out his memoirs, Books, if you haven’t already — it’s a great read.

    Also, your upcoming book has a hell of a title; I can’t wait to read it!


  2. I read Lonesome Dove when I had little kids (and now I’m a grandfather), but I so clearly remember the pure pleasure and enjoyment I experienced reading it. If someone asked me to name my favorite three American novels of the second half of the last century, Lonesome Dove would be on the list–I know I should probably instead list novels by Roth, Bellow, Updike, McCarthy, Wallace or DeLillo (and indeed the other two choices would probably be from among those authors), but who could ever forget, among many other amazingly,movingly, hilariously rendered scenes, Pea Eye walking naked back to his outfit after the Indian encounter? And for those who have read it more recently, do I have that scene right?

    Lydia mentions the mini-series: I watch very little television, but I maintain that this mini-series is one of the best things I have watched on network television. Read the book, then watch the mini-series–you won’t regret it.

    One other McMurtry note: if you haven’t seen it, watch Brokeback Mountain (the so-called Gay Cowboy Movie); I watched it when it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival a few years ago, knowing nothing about it other than that the screenplay was co-written by McMurtry (based on a short story written by Annie Proulx) and it is one of my favorite fllms of the past ten years.

  3. Crans, this is one of my favorite books of all time. Just transporting. Thanks for the reminder to pick it up once again.

    To the list of recent hefty marvels I would add Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It’s magnificent.

  4. Thank you for this post. It reminded me that Lonesome Dove is the book that’s sat the longest, unread, on my shelves. 15+ years ago, a good friend told me it was her favorite book. I bought it based on that, then it sat on various shelves through many moves. I never gave up hope I’d read it. When you reminded me, I took it with me on a weekend trip where I had lots of flight time.

    Other, not quite so recent epics it reminded me of, at least in feel: Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.